This year it was august before I heard the first one.
A single beat. Solid, but small. Like a toddler stamping her foot on sod.
When they are not your business, when the tree is just one tree of many in the yard, it is easy to forget the apples are up there—patient, pale green in the leafy green, solidly swelling themselves toward autumn. Of course, you knew the tree was gestating. Only the most myopic toe-gazer could miss the birth announcement, a temporary confetti of blushing boudoir whites, even as the leaves were still working out their springtime kinks. More than once between bloom and blossom-drop you walked over and stuck your head straight into the bee-buzzing beauty of it, an antidote to the fragrance of mud and thaw.
Then there was the mid-summer reminder: you pushed the mower beneath the lowest branch and were tapped on the noggin by something the size of a walnut. You’d feel one or two beneath your heel, too, firm enough that they punched into the lawn like golf balls into a wet putting green. But these were small, and you would never hear them drop as you heard the apple drop today, the sound traveling from the point of impact through the window screen into the cool house: tunk.
It’s apple time.
It is exotic for me to have an apple tree in my yard, and scores more scattered around our little patch of land. I was raised on a farm that ran to swampy flatland, and although I remember my parents planting apple trees near the swing set, they never thrived. Someone must have advised my father that the trees lacked iron because one evening he circled their anemic trunks, doling out rust chips from a bucket. I don’t know where he harvested the rust, but scattered on the ground there the scraps looked like Godzilla’s corn flakes.
The only productive apple tree I knew of stood some four miles from the farm in a roadside fencerow at the crest of Nadelhoffer Hill. Stopping on my way home from football practice, I would drop my bike in the ditch, pick four good ones, then remount and fly off the hill—no hands!—biting into one apple and cradling the others to eat in turn. Two miles down the road, they were all gone.
Have you ever noticed that if you consume more than one apple in immediate sequence, the second and third never quite match the zing of the first? I suspect there is a scientific term for this (perhaps a sommelier could explain it in terms of cleansing the palate) but I call it the declension of taste. It applies also to the second cup of coffee.
My nine-year-old daughter, Amy, advises me that stink bugs taste like green apples, but barring end-times swarms and a famine, I don’t intend to intentionally verify that one. Happily, I am quite satisfied with the simple results of wrapping a cored apple in tinfoil with butter and cinnamon before tossing it in the campfire coals to bake. Later, when you peel the foil in the late October chill and hot-mouth the first few bites, it is difficult to imagine a combination of scent and flavor better designed to counteract the depressive effects of cooling weather and shortening sun than warm apples and cinnamon. And don’t Grandma and the potpourri industry know it!
After the first audible apple hits the earth, others follow. In progressive weeks the tunk grows meatier and more sodden. Given the right gust of wind a dozen will hit the ground in a pelting ratamacue. Some days you hear a steady tunk, tunk, tunk despite calm weather, the stems loosened by some invisible ungluing or perhaps a barometric shift. When the larger apples cut loose from high up, they slap and tear through the leaves on their way down, a few of which flutter down in the wake of the fruit. Once a week, I gather the fallen fruit, saving some for cider and tossing some to the pigs and chickens.
The windfalls are bruised and bird-pecked, but if you get to them before the ants and aim your bites carefully, they make a fine impromptu snack as you pass through the yard. Last year was the first year my toddler, Jane, discovered the joy of snagging apples from the grass, and it is the one food I allow her to discard unfinished. Thus, around the yard you will find apples with teeth tracks around the equator. (There is the occasional deviation for a worm hole. I figure learning to eat around the worms is preparation for life itself.)
In time, we harvest the apples still hanging in the tree. I have an apple picker, the simple basket-on-a-stick model, and we can pluck from all but the tippy-top branches. Occasionally one bounces off the basket and heads straight for my pate. There is nothing romantic about the tunk of apple against cranium. Newton may have discovered gravity, but I bet you two dollars he said a bad word first.
We use the picked apples for the standard apple things, of course: apple pies, apple tart, apple sauce, sliced apples and cheese, sliced apples and peanut butter, and just plain apples. Our harvest is not aggressive, but after my apple tree-free youth, I still haven’t grown past the idea that these red and green spheres are found treasure and must be put to good use.
One cool evening last September, when my wife was in town instructing a yoga class and I was left in charge of the children, we gathered a bucket of acorns, a bucket of windfall apples, a sharpened stick, and an aluminum baseball bat. I placed the bucket of acorns about ten feet from the pig pen, then drove the butt of the stick into the acorns, which held it in the vertical but lent it some “give” in the event of an errant swing. Then I skewered an apple on the point of the stick, handed Amy the bat and—at a safe distance—took Jane on my lap and settled into a lawn chair to watch the show.
It took Amy a while to really connect, but when she did the apple went straight to sauce, falling in a mist of chunks and sweetness over the curious pigs. (If you have seen Harold Edgerton’s famous photograph Shooting the Apple, 1964, you get the idea.) As the pigs fell to nibbling the bits, Amy speared another apple and swung away. Ping went the aluminum bat, splatter went the apple, grunt went the pigs. I took a few cuts too, but mostly just reveled in observing.
Perhaps an apple deserves more respect. But the kids were happy, and the pigs were happy. What you had here was your much-vaunted quality family time. Brought to you by apples. In the surrounding hills, the leaves were well into their turning. I thought back to the blossoms, back to the tunk!, back across the summer gone. A light breeze was blowing up from the valley and, with it, the scent of apple season in its conclusion—quite literally cider on the wind.
10 places near the Twin Cities where you can pick your own
Compiled by Morgan Mercer
Minnesota Harvest Orchard
Pluck 10 unique varieties of apples, like the Sugar Shack and Tiger, only grown here.
8251 Old Hwy. 169 Blvd., Jordan, 952-492-2785,
Apple Jack Orchards
After harvesting a bushel, fire off a few rounds from the onsite apple cannon. Splat!
4875 37th St. SE, Delano, 763-972-6673, applejackorchards.com
Maiden Rock Apples
Sample hard ciders made from the orchard’s own apples.
W12266 King Ln.,
Deardorff Orchards & Vineyards
Take a free wagon ride to pick your own apples on the weekends.
8350 Parley Lake Rd., Waconia,
Afton Apple Orchard
Lose yourself in the 15-acre corn maze. It offers three courses, from a beginner’s option to something more headspinning.
14421 90th St. S., Hastings, 651-436-8385, aftonapple.com
Over 100 scarecrows—from tin men to the Statue of Liberty—dot the landscape during the orchard’s annual scarecrow festival.
311 Enterprise Dr., Belle Plain, 952-873-3006, emmakrumbees.com
Pleasant Valley Orchard
Pack a picnic, grab some apples, and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the scenic St. Croix River Valley.
17325 Pleasant Valley Rd., Shafer, 651-257-9159, pleasantvalleyorchard.com
Come on the weekend to pick apples while live music fills the air.
6530 County Rd. 26, Minnetrista, 763-479-6530, minnetonkaorchards.com
Fisher’s Croix Farm Orchard
Stock up on apples, raspberries, and pumpkins at this family-friendly orchard located on St. Croix River.
12971 St. Croix Trail S., Hastings, 651-437-7126, fischerscroixfarmorchard.com
Squish apples into juice using an old-fashioned cider press. Then, wander through the orchard and adopt a tree.
15953 State Hwy. 99, Montgomery, 952-221-1051, montgomery-orchard.com
Michael Perry is author of the bestselling memoirs Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, Truck: A Love Story, and Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting. He lives in rural Wisconsin.